Documentary about teachers affected by low pay is tear jerker, conversation starter
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04/27/12 Janelle Irwin
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Erik Benner travles to school districts to speak about his role in the documentary American Teacher.


photo by Janelle Irwin

Funding for public education nationwide is taking a hit. In Florida, educators saw $1.3 billion in cuts last year; $1 billion were restored this year. The shrinking budgets mean fewer teachers with lower pay. At a screening of a film in Tampa last night that documents how low salaries affect teachers nationwide, a panel of professionals answered the question, ‘why is paying teachers more so important?’

American Teacher, a documentary featuring several current and former teachers nationwide, drew tears from many of the 50 or so teachers watching from a high school auditorium. That’s because it portrayed things like a dad who had to take on a second job to support his family and a new mom who had to search for a place to pump breast milk while she was away from her 6-week-old infant. Melissa Erickson, president of the Hillsborough County PTA, choked up when she remembered that same character’s realization that her year’s worth of supplies for a Kindergarten classroom only took up a small corner of a table.

“And she’s not overwhelmed by how paltry they are except for one fact. She says, ‘they promised there would be markers.’ So, her expectations are so low she was just hoping for markers. No teacher should be able to hold their year’s worth of supplies in one hand. It’s criminal.”

Teachers like that are often forced to use what little salary they earn to purchase their own supplies. The best they can hope for is a handful of compassionate parents who do their best to donate needed items. For Erik Benner, a Texas middle school history teacher featured in the film, he was forced to take on a second job to keep his family’s finances afloat.

“If I didn’t have to work this second job I guarantee I’d probably be spending more time, you know, how can I make this lesson better? We were talking about that just the other day. I’d like to become the Bill Nye of Texas history where I find somebody to fund me to be able to be able to shoot videos that I could bring to class of the places that we’re actually talking about. And the kids are like, ‘you should do that coach, you should do that!’ But it is, that’s my passion, but you do what you’ve got to do.”

And he still lost his family. His wife. His two daughters. Gone. All because the strain of him never being home was too much to handle. That burden – that sacrifice – is not uncommon in a profession where turnover rates are among the highest in the nation.

“I firmly believe – and the research says this – people stay where they feel valued and one way to make people feel valued is to make sure they’re not struggling.” That was Carmyn Samuel. She’s a teacher at Roland Park K-8 Magnet School in Tampa. She and the other three panelists all agreed – paying teachers more would benefit students, communities and economies. Linda Kobert is the co-founder of a Florida-based non-profit foundation called Fund Education Now. She compared teacher pay to that of others like doctors and lawyers. And those are professions whose average salaries are well above anything teachers expect.

“It would recognize their value as professionals. One of the things that caught my ear when we watched this today was the amount of intellectual rigor that this job requires and we should value and we should pay for it like we do in other professions.”

One school administrator in the documentary called attention to the fact that his college-aged son made more money selling cell phones than many of his teachers. In the film the administrator says that it’s a telling sign of where the nation’s priorities are. And Donna Moffatt, vice president of the Hillsborough County PTA, said she sick of watching what precious dollars school systems do have being squandered on anything but paying for quality teachers.

“And I see money going to things like programs to close gaps. Then I see things for testing to see if the programs closed the gap. Then I see, did this test really make an improvement, so now we’ll test the test. And now I have to wonder after all of these years, if we put all of that money into a quality teacher, would we have had the gap in the first place?”

Since American Teacher was released, Erik Benner has won teacher of the year in his school district. And even though a raise would go a long way for him, what he did to earn that honor is something he said any good teacher would do with or without the pay incentive.

“You have to change. You have to roll with the times. You have to change with the times. You have to bring – I mean, would you want to go to a doctor who was still using the same practices as 30-years ago? No! You’ve got to catch up with the times. So, when you walk into my class, very seldom do we just open up the book and read from the chapter.”

The documentary is based on a book called “Teachers Have it Easy” that was co-written by teachers and founders of education non-profits. In both the film and the book, the pay, treatment and working conditions for teachers are used to explain why nearly half of all teachers don’t stay in the profession for more than 5-years.

Here are some of our stories about education.











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